LIFE&STYLE

Caribbean culture, hotel mergers among travel trends

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 1, 2016 - 14:12
  • Updated : Jul 1, 2016 - 14:12
A couple of developments in the travel industry have been making headlines recently. They may not be in the biggest type, but they’re notable. They’ve gotten me thinking. They’re indicators, I think, of what may be trends that will affect your travels in the near future.

What do you think?

Culture in the Caribbean

Cuba’s hot. Its new prominence at the top of Americans’ list of places to see has gained most of the attention. But Cuba’s new rock-star status is also making waves among government and tourism officials throughout the Caribbean. Some see the country as competition, potentially stealing away tourists from their own sunny oases.

And with so many islands depending on tourism for so much of their economic stability, such competition can’t really be ignored.

Havana, Cuba (Kevin Spear/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Certainly the biggest reason for Cuba-mania -- for everyone wanting to rush to its shores (and its cities) ASAP -- is that it was so taboo for so long. But Cuba also boasts a distinct experience for the Caribbean: an island that has not just the Caribbean sea-and-sand part, but a huge amount of culture and heritage, besides.

Resonance Consultancy, which works with destinations worldwide on strategies for branding and image building, just came out with its 2016 Caribbean Tourism Quality Index. Cuba ranked third overall in quality, and first for culture relative to the total number of attractions of all the Caribbean islands popular with tourists.

To measure the cultural experience in a destination, Resonance analyzes the quantity of very good and excellent recommendations on TripAdvisor in the categories of museums and shows and performances. This includes attractions such as history museums, art galleries, concerts and theater. (After Cuba came Puerto Rico at second; Dominican Republic at third; Bahamas at fourth; Bermuda at fifth; Jamaica at sixth; Barbados at seventh; U.S. Virgin Islands at eighth; Guadeloupe at ninth; and Aruba at 10th)

Resonance posited that Cuba’s cultural strength could attract “a new, more culturally oriented traveler to the region, potentially even creating an increased demand for more cultural offerings throughout the Caribbean.” Cuba has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, Resonance notes -- there are 22 in total in the Caribbean, yet most travelers aren’t aware of them. Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and Bridgetown, Barbados, are just two of those historic UNESCO sites.

For the most part, Americans think of the Caribbean for its sunny skies, warm sands and every-color-of-blue waters. And for the most part, that’s how the islands of the Caribbean have marketed themselves -- separately, and together. Resonance points to Cuba’s new model of a Caribbean island with culture as a draw -- one that other islands might need to follow to stay competitive.

Not just to keep up with Cuba, but to keep up with the changing preferences of travelers today -- the emphasis on “experiential” and authentic opportunities at a destination. Every island, every country, has a unique story to tell, a history and other things that set it apart from other sunny spots.

Some destinations have already tapped into Cuba’s tourism draw, literally. Intrepid Travel, for instance, already offers a 22-day Mexico and Cuba trip that combines the epic urbanity of Mexico City and Havana with the ancient ruins at Palenque and the beach resort of Playa del Carmen. “Teeming with stunning natural scenery and brimming with history, this Mexico and Cuba adventure serves up fun and fascination in equal measure” -- a pitch that would be hard not to swing at.

Members of the Caribbean Tourism Organization are thinking of similar winning combinations -- possibly culinary tours that explore the popularity and use of spices in Cuba and, say, Grenada and Guadeloupe. Or perhaps music-and-dance-themed trips following the rhythms of the Caribbean, from Cuba to Trinidad to the Bahamas.

“Cuba is a cultural destination, a quiet stroll and an old-school cool,” the spin doctors at Resonance point out, adding that “in many ways, it may also be the future of Caribbean tourism.” A future that’s not too far out, if current developments -- at least on the U.S. tour operator side -- are any indication. Stay tuned.

Merger mania

Another wave rippling through tourism is mergers. No, not in the airlines. Heck, with only four legacy airlines left, there are hardly any players left to merge with.

A city street in Havanna, Cuba (Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The main news right now is in hotels. Marriott International is buying Starwood Hotels for $12.2 billion in cash and stock, creating the largest hotel company in the world based on rooms. It will bring together, under one company, 30-plus hotel brands, some of which we were only starting to understand. And while the brands were designed -- at least on the consumer side -- to give us more choices in accommodations that would fit our lifestyle, they all, in the end, are going to be owned and operated by the same parent. And with less competition, that company will be able to control prices, policies and loyalty programs.

Consumers – travelers -- are not blind. We have seen this with airlines over the years. So we’re educated. But we are also pretty much powerless as the pool of competition dries up. Consumers end up with less, and the larger merged company gets more. With airline consolidation, frequent-flier benefits were reduced, capacity was restricted, takeoff and landing slots were controlled, international airfares were increased and pricing algorithms were changed to favor airlines.

In the hotel business, the bottom line for shareholders -- along with profits, of course -- is in total properties. Which has many analysts in the hospitality industry projecting that the other big fish, such as Wyndham and IHG, will be doing a little more gobbling up of small fish, or each other, in the near future.

Lodging is just one area in which travelers’ choices may be constricting. Throughout the mutli-trillion-dollar travel industry there are examples that are no less unsettling.

Expedia, for instance, is the parent company of Expedia.com, Hotels.com, Orbitz.com, Hotwire.com, Travelocity.com, Homeaway.com, Trivago.com (well, we don’t really have the space for all this now, do we?)

And why, in fact, do we even need Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity when they all pretty much offer the same choices in hotels, airfares, vacations etc. and the same deals, too?

Well, some of us might not have noticed the redundancy. Or that despite having these three different options, the gobbling up of companies is creating a monopoly on information.

And information, in the end, is the most valuable commodity for any traveler, anyone who needs to make decisions.

In these days of big-fish chow downs you may, therefore, want to pay attention to the bottom of the website you’re visiting just to see how many little fish are connected to the same school of thought. (Tribune Content Agency)

By Jill Schensul

The Record